It's 2018, and most progressive-thinking people recognize that porn can be great. But it might be even better than we thought—especially for women of color hoping to figure out some stuff.

New research published in the Journal of Sexuality and Culture found that porn is useful in helping women explore their sexual interests. According to the study, women who watched porn were more likely to embrace sex, and in addition to being more in touch with their sexuality (no pun intended—OK, maybe some pun intended), women who watched porn were more likely to use the internet to find community with other women who did the same.

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The benefits of these actions can't be overstated: We live in a society that predominantly discourages sexual expression unless it's for the benefit of male partners. But finding community with other women who embrace their sexuality can allow women to develop sexual relationships in which they can present their authentic selves, instead of bending to fit into narrow categories of acceptable expression. This can be especially true for women of color.

But why is this issue connected to race? Limitations on women's sexuality aren't limited exclusively to Black women: For generations, women have been bound to others' sexual expectations. This struggle affects all women—but as usual, our statuses affect how these expectations are expressed, and women of color, especially Black women, still face disproportionately greater restrictions on their sexuality.

Alicia Wallace, a gender rights activist and public educator, explains that the history of misogynoir—or misogyny directed toward Black women—has negatively impacted Black women's sexual expression. Wallace notes that our sexual identities are further complicated by the fact that we are aware of how our past has led to the struggles we continue to contend with today.

"We're fully aware of the ways our bodies have been used for the gratification of others—for example, as sex slaves and wet nurses," Wallace says. "It often feels as though we have only two options: The first is to actively fight against sexual objectification by hiding our bodies, refusing to talk about sex, and putting other parts of our humanity and personalities in the center of our beings and presentations of ourselves, often to the exclusion—and possible detriment—of our sexuality."

Alternatively, she says, the other option is to take control of our own sexual image and define it for ourselves before anyone else has the chance to.

"We're in a complicated situation, fighting for the right and the comfort to do what we want today while acknowledging the distance we've covered and the oppression we still face," Wallace says. "This is true in online dating—where racism masquerades as a fetish—as well as in the artists we love putting people like us on display specifically for the male gaze."

So what can porn and sexual exploration mean for women of color?

Is it possible that porn might offer the same—or even greater—benefits to those of us burdened by chronic racism? According to the experts, the answer is yes—this expression of sexuality might even be exceptionally important for women of color.

"Porn can be a great way to safely explore and normalize sexual behaviors that you're interested in," says Cameron Glover, sex columnist and sex educator. "A lot of people can be turned on by visuals, and porn is one of the most accessible means of being stimulated in that way. I think for WOC and non-binary folks, porn is another tool that you can add to your sexuality arsenal."

Black women need the space to explore and normalize sexual behaviors, and porn is a safe place to do this. Black women, in particular, are often limited from discussing wants and desires in social spaces, especially concerning more taboo sexual topics. Sexual repression—especially when compounded with the pressure of systemic oppression—can become exhausting.

In 2016, feminist studies scholar Mireille Miller-Young made a study of the history of African-American women in pornography, delving into archives of pornographic material and interviewing porn stars. She argues that despite the history of oppression, pornography has also been a resistance tool against both the racist and sexist views that hold down Black female sexuality.

Porn can help women of color explore their own desires.

Patrice Thomas, 28, started using porn to explore her sexuality at the age of 18 when her aunt suggested she use it to learn more about sex. "I didn't have sex education in school or at home, but I was curious about sex. I wanted to know what it looked like and how it worked."

Watching porn helped her discover that she didn't fit into the fundamentalist religious household she was brought up in. "I grew up under the assumption that I'm heterosexual and was startled to find myself aroused by the female form and get off on watching female pleasure. I don't claim a bisexual identity, but I don't consider myself entirely straight, either," she says.

In the Black community, religion and spirituality are very important. While that cultural custom might be a wonderful coping mechanism when searching for the strength to deal with systemic oppression, it often conflicts with healthy sexual development. Traditional Christian doctrine has conservative views on sexual expression, exploration, and sexual orientation—especially for women. This can discourage many Black women, like Thomas, from prioritizing sexuality.

Watching sex online gives us the chance to explore topics we might not be comfortable discussing in public—even with friends. This is particularly important for women of color because expectations about who we are and how we are allowed to express sexuality limit our access to exploration in real life. If you are like Thomas and hail from a background that gives specific instructions for how you are expected to perform Black womanhood, there is relief in porn.

Porn can be a form of self-care.

Day after day, Black women experience racialized sexism that weighs heavily on both our mental and physical health. For us, there is often no refuge from the oppression of the patriarchy or the stress associated with racism, and these experiences lead to a heightened need for self-care and self-love. At times, the pressure of living life as a marginalized individual becomes so much that checking in this way can be extremely important.

For Monica Smith, 26, porn has been an outlet to explore her sexuality and promote self-acceptance. "I think giving myself space, time, and love to do this on my own terms—without judgment—has been emotionally, physically, and mentally freeing," she says. "It's helped me accept myself, my identity, and my sexuality, and I've grown to accept and love myself so much more. I never realized how important it is, but it's vital—especially if you want to be intimate with others."

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"I think porn can open a new world," Wallace says. "It can make imagination possible, especially for people who have had limited sexual experience. It's a means to consider other ways of being sexual and intimate without having to practice, or feeling vulnerable with someone else."

However, many WOC are unsure about the best way to ease into porn. If you're thinking about it, consider starting small. "I started out watching GIFs on Tumblr and slowly graduated to videos. I keep a bookmark file of my favorites called 'petit mort,'" Thomas jokes.

Finding porn that doesn't suck for women—especially women of color—can be difficult.

Once we overcome the pre-conditioned guilt associated with watching porn, women may find another barrier: A lot of pornographic content is aimed pretty exclusively at a male audience. "There are so many different types of porn, and many interpretations and understandings of the material. Much of it seems to subjugate women, even when we seem to be in power—the performance aspect of porn feeds masculinity, from the positions to the sounds," Wallace says.

Thankfully, there are subcategories and communities to provide women with more direct access to better-tailored content. Terms like the quickly-multiplying "Porn for Women" tag lead the way to videos that tend to be less male-centered. "When the only videos I could find were anal or incest/rape, I spent a lot of time googling 'free ethical porn' and found a subreddit of links that women vet and share with descriptions and reviews," Thomas says.

Of course, there are downsides to porn when it comes to the sexual identity development for women of color. The phrasing of porn categories can be reflective of stereotypes that are harmful: Just like in the real world, the pornography industry limits the range of acceptable scenes of individuals of color.

"In mainstream porn, fetishization is still how many people of color are allowed space," Glover says. "You see a similar overlay with how trans bodies are hyper-consumed when they are allowed to exist in porn, and representation for gender nonconforming individuals is still largely nonexistent.

But I think this is definitely improving as more independent porn options, like CrashPadSeries, are becoming more available," says Glover, referring to a porn site that offers porn for queer individuals of all genders and orientation. They prioritize ethical consumption and dissemination of material along with advocating safe sex, ethnic diversity, equal pay, and comfort for their contributors. While these kinds of sites are few and far between, they can provide a framework for prioritizing sexual identity development for individuals overlooked in traditional porn.

But it's worth it—for developing your own sexual identity (and sex with your partner too).

For many WOC, porn has been the only tool available to explore what we do and don't like sexually in a safe way. Black women have often been portrayed as insatiable, hypersexual beings. In an attempt to help us, our families often restricted sexual expression through messages about good Black girls not being "fast." Those messages about the strict boxes Black women must fit into remove our ability to connect with those around us without shame, but when seen in private, porn offers a bit of refuge from the stigma of sexuality for Black women.

There are many obstacles on the path to healthy sexual identities for women of color. Some of them are common to all women and taught through cultural influencers like religion; others are personalized through oppressive histories and exclusion. Unfortunately, the world isn't going to change so we can accept ourselves—but many Black women have decided that we aren't going to be limited by the metaphorical chains others apply to our sexuality.

The good news is, women are watching more porn than ever. According to PornHub's 2017 end of the year review, the term "Porn for Women," saw a 359 percent increase over the last year. And when porn is helping, it can help show us what we might be open to—and what we would absolutely not consider in real life. Porn is also a great place to explore possibilities that we may want to attempt in real life with our partners, such as kinks, fetishes, positions, accessories, and additional people, Thomas says.

In order to ensure sexual education considers the struggles and cultural concerns we face, Black women are founding their own sexual curriculums and networks, and becoming sex educators, which is helping create more conversation around sex—and porn—in our community. Despite being a nonconventional tool, porn shows a lot of promise as we choose how we will portray our sexual identities. It provides an unrivaled opportunity for women of color to test the boundaries of sex and interest with risks. And once we have established those boundaries and found empowerment, no one will ever remove our freedom again.

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist who produces materials relating to mental and physical health, sociology, and parenting. Her work can be seen on several national platforms. Check her out on Facebook and Twitter.

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